18 pages 36 minutes read

Gwendolyn Brooks

Cynthia in the Snow

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1956

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Summary and Study Guide


Heralded author, poet, and teacher Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks grew up in the South Side Chicago, Illinois, neighborhood of Bronzeville. By age 13, she’d published her first poem; in 1950, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Annie Allen, making her the first Black American to do so. She was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, and held that position for 32 years until her death in 2000. In 1976, Brooks was also the first Black woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition to this, she was Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1985 to 1986.

Brooks’s childhood experiences in Bronzeville, an area nicknamed the “Black Metropolis” because it was home to many influential writers, artists, and key figures of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, informed her work. Much of Brooks’s work focuses on Black joy and the joy of childhood, often inspired from her own childhood.

“Cynthia in the Snow” was published in the 1956 collection Bronzeville Girls and Boys, which features poems that celebrate and explore the joy, freedom, and imagination of Black childhood. Intended for young readers, Bronzeville Girls and Boys is an illustrated picture book; like many children’s poetry collections, it is flexible in genre and can be enjoyed by adults. The poem’s text describes a small, beautiful moment of childhood, using onomatopoeia, alliteration, personification, and rhyme to paint the beauty of snow dancing around a young girl named Cynthia. Its subtext explores race and feelings of inadequacy, with whiteness being a quieting, dampening agent in Cynthia’s life.

Storytelling about specific moments in a Black child’s emotions, told in ways that inspire universal understanding, is typical of Brooks’s work. Other poems from Bronzeville Boys and Girls, such as “Timmy and Tawanda” and “Val,” explore the desire to play, to be unsupervised, and to escape.

Poet Biography

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1917. Her father, David Anderson Brooks, worked as a janitor in a music company. He had dreams of working as a doctor but sacrificed them in order to marry and have a family. Her mother, Keziah “Wims” Brooks, was a schoolteacher and a classically trained concert pianist. She taught at the Topeka School, the school at the center of the landmark 1954Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional.

The family moved to Chicago when Gwendolyn was six weeks old, and remained there permanently. Chicago had become their home. In a 1994 interview Brooks said: “I am an organic Chicagoan. Living there has given me a multiplicity of characters to aspire for. I hope to live there the rest of my days. That's my headquarters.” (B. Denise Hawkins, “An Evening with Gwendolyn Brooks”)

Brooks began writing at an early age. At the age of 13, she published her first poem, “Eventide,” which appeared in the children's magazine American Childhood. She was particularly prolific, having written and published about 75 poems by the age of 16. Her mother was encouraging of her writing. Though Brooks never pursued a four-year college degree, she did ultimately pursue and finish a two-year program at Kennedy-King College, then known as Wilson Junior College. As Brooks said in that same 1994 B. Denise Hawkins interview: “I am not a scholar […] I’m just a writer who loves to write and will always write.”

Brooks wrote in a variety of styles, using traditional forms such as ballads or sonnets and free verse pieces featuring Blues rhythms. For much of her work, she drew inspiration from her life in Chicago, as evidence in the titles of collections such as Bronzeville Boys and Girls, A Street in Bronzeville, and In the Mecca, whose title refers to the “Black Mecca” of Chicago.

The first book of poetry that Brooks published, A Street in Bronzeville, which came out in 1945, earned the poet tremendous critical acclaim. Shortly after its publication, Brooks received her first Guggenheim Fellowship. Annie Allen, her second book of poetry, won a Pulitzer Prize—making her the first Black person to win one.

In the 1960’s, Brooks became more politically involved. She taught creative writing to the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago gang, and attended the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Nashville Fisk University, where she met activists and artists such as Haki R. Madhubuti and Imamu Amiri Baraka. Brooks went on to teach at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Northeastern, and the City College of New York.

Brooks met her husband, Henry Langton Blakely Jr., in 1939 after meeting him at an NAACP Youth Council meeting. They had two children: a son named Henry Lowington Blakely III, and Nora Brooks Blakely. Henry passed away in 1996. Brooks passed away in her Chicago home on December 3, 2000, at the age of 83.

Poem Text

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “Cynthia in the Snow.” 1956. All Poetry.


The poem opens with an onomatopoeic description of the sounds made by falling snow: “It SUSHES / it hushes” (Lines 1-2). Note that some editions of the poem may read “It SHUSHES” in Line 1, possibly an attempt at “correcting” the word, but the version as published in Bronzeville Boys and Girls reads “SUSHES.” The snow is quiets “the loudness in the road” (Line 3). Line 4 features a sing-song internal rhyme to describe the movement of each snowflake that “twitter-flitters.”

The poem now reveals its speaker: We are seeing the first person perspective of Cynthia, the young girl from the title, who experiences the snow as “laughing away” from her (Line 5). By describing the snow as “laughing,” Brooks personifies this weather event in a multivalent way: In one reading, the laughter is an expression of joy—a game between Cynthia and the snowflakes; yet, there is a hint of antagonism in the idea that the snow is laughing “away from me”—the movement is contrapuntal, and the odd locution “laughing away” implicitly suggests the much more common phrase “laughing at.” The poem doubles down on the personification of the snow in Line 6, which describes the flakes again as “laughing.” The repetition of the verb and the alliteration of the l sound provide an echo of a childlike la-la-la refrain, which carries a sense of happiness, fun, and joy. Line 7 brings back the keep-away game and its potential meanness, as the snow again alliteratively “whitely whirls away” from Cynthia.

“To be / Some otherwhere” (Lines 8-9) uses an archaic term for a distant, unknown location, striking a fairytale or folktale note, which is fitting for this quasi-magical snow with its powers of laughter and the ability to direct its movements around the poem’s speaker. As Cynthia watches the snow, she marvels that it is “Still white as milk or shirts” (Line 10), comparing the newly falling snow to freshly washed laundry or a substance most commonly used to metaphorize whiteness. The “still” is poignant—Cynthia knows that soon the snow on the ground will turn brown with muck, so she is amazed to have caught the snowflakes in their most pristine aspect. However, the fact that this ultraclean, white snow is going “some otherwhere” jibes with the poem’s last line, which brings to the text the so far unspoken pain of the moment: “So beautiful it hurts” (Line 11) expresses the complex bittersweetness that the young girl is experiencing.

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